Police warning over road gritting by private firms

SCOTLAND'S major roads have become more dangerous for motorists since contracts for gritting services were privatised, according to the leader of the country's rank-and-file police officers.

• A council grit depot. The harsh winter has had a serious impact on supplies. Picture: TSPL

Les Gray, the new chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, said the standard of winter maintenance on the nation's busiest roads plunged after the job was tendered out to the private sector and should now be given back to councils.

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Gray was speaking as the nation's vanishing stocks of grit and salt were set to dwindle further, with temperatures set to remain below zero and more snow expected this week. Supplies are already being rationed around the country after almost three weeks of relentless snow and ice affecting the transport network.

In Scotland, councils used to grit all roads, but responsibility for trunk roads – the country's major traffic arteries – was taken away in 1999 and is now contracted out by the government's Transport Scotland agency.

Gray said traffic officers wanted to see the front-line service brought back into the public sector. He said: "The service has not been the same since the councils lost their contracts to treat the trunk roads. Ultimately, if the roads are not getting gritted as frequently with as much salt as they used to be, then they are not as safe as they used to be.

"It used to be that you would see gritters on the go all day and all night. But now you could play a game of spot the gritter."

Scotland has a network of 2,200 miles of trunk roads connecting cities, ports and major communities, ranging from the M8 connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh to the single- carriageway A9 north of Inverness. Although they represent just over 6 per cent of the total road network in Scotland, they carry 37 per cent of all traffic and 62 per cent of heavy goods vehicles.

Gray, speaking in his first interview since taking office last week, said gritting companies "are tendering at such a low rate (for the contract], that they can't possibly deliver the same service.

"How many people have seen a gritter going down the road with flashing lights and no salt coming out? This is because the companies have undercut their rivals and can't afford to do the job properly."

Councils lost contracts to maintain such roads in 2000 under the Labour-Liberal Scottish Executive. They were replaced by private contractors, currently Amey, Scotland Transerv and Bear Scotland, which adhere to what officials insist are rigorous obligations.

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Some police officers have been questioning the quality of the service provided by the contractors, especially after a female police officer died last year after skidding on an ungritted motorway. Gray said: "If we can't grit the M8, then we have got a problem."

Donald, 40, a Strathclyde detective constable, died on 21 January last year after her car skidded on black ice on the M8 near Glasgow Airport as she drove to work. The motorway was gritted 15 minutes after the crash.

A spokesman for Transport Scotland said: "The contractual arrangements in place for the management and maintenance of Scotland's trunk roads ensure continuous improvements across the trunk road network, whilst maximising the value for money to taxpayers."

However, Gray's remarks were welcomed by unions and opposition politicians.

Dave Watson, the Scottish organiser of public sector union Unison, said: "We have consistently campaigned against outsourcing trunk road maintenance both because private contractors work for profit, not for public service, and because the accountability for that service becomes unclear. We welcome the confirmation of our concerns from the police officers who, like our members, are at the sharp end, dealing with the consequences of this privatisation."

Charlie Gordon, Labour's Scottish transport spokesman, said this winter's weather had exposed weaknesses in Scotland's ability to cope with extreme weather and described Gray's calls for renationalising maintenance "an important contribution to a debate that is only getting started".

Councils and MSPs in Scotland's worst affected areas said yesterday that the supply of grit for the roads under their control was disappearing fast.

Borders MSP Jeremy Purvis said: "We are at breaking point. We have been warning the government about the seriousness of the situation, but there is still no mechanism in place for central provision in Scotland."

Highlands councillor John Holden said: "We should be able to cope with it as long as the weather doesn't get a lot worse. Everyone's been working flat out up here."